Marvel and DC are once more making digital announcements at Comic-Con. Marvel with a bit of gusto, DC more like NBC-era Paul Schaffer saying “Gee Dave, I don’t know if this is such a good idea.” We should probably talk about all this and the paths being taken.
The bigger announcement being Marvel getting even further in bed with Amazon/Comixology. Those two entities are co-habituating to such a degree there might be a palimony suit if they ever break up. The latest update is that Marvel is going to be doing some Comixology-exclusive digital firsts.
We should start out by saying the line between Comixology and Amazon is blurred to the point it might not matter anymore, past your choice of shopping interface and staff who handle the comics material. When they say digital comics are available for Comixology and the Kindle, that generally means you can shop for the same thing on either the Comixology site or the regular Amazon site. Everything’s interchangeable now and the Comixology viewer is FINALLY integrated into the new Kindle software build – which is a good thing for publishers.
Digital firsts aren’t a new thing. DC, in particular, has been doing them for years. What’s really interesting here are two things: the actual content and where it’s showing up.
The first series is Immortal Iron Fists, a 6-issue bi-weekly series written by Kaare Andrews with art by Afu Chan. Here’s the description:
A unique entry-point that’s perfect for new fans and longtime readers alike, Immortal Iron Fists tells the tale of Pei, a young female monk from K’un-Lun and the youngest person to ever bear the mark of the Iron Fist. While Pei tackles the trials of high school, Danny Rand, the Immortal Iron Fist, faces his greatest challenge yet: training the inexperienced Pei. All the while, a growing threat appears that will take more than one pair of Iron Fists to defeat!
And if you look at the preview pages over at Comixology, it appears to be a YA title. You know, something like Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur that does big business outside the Direct Market, but can’t seem to move the needle in many comic shops.
Regular Beat readers will recall that one of the business models to fall back on if the Direct Market imploded, would be digital first and the print for the collected editions. Dark Horse already does a little bit of this for titles that have a book audience, but not much of a periodical audience.
That’s not necessarily the intent here, but the first announced products surely do look like products whose audience is going to do the majority of their buying outside the world of monthly/bi-weekly comics and Marvel doesn’t have to hear about low monthly sales on either. Time will tell if they can recoup their investment by cutting the print serialization out of the equation, but it’s an experiment worth doing and isn’t crazy for this type of material.
And these titles will also be included in Comixology Unlimited, the comics equivalent of Kindle Unlimited and Amazon’s entrant into the Netflix-style distribution model. Speaking of which:
Then over at DC, Jim Lee was asked about whether DC was going to be doing their version of Marvel Unlimited, Marvel’s digital comics equivalent of Netflix. Lee’s reply was that they’d been looking into it, done the research but weren’t ready to pull the trigger on it. The usual concerns about devaluing the catalog.
I’ve seen quite a few comments in the comment section over the last few months, blaming Marvel Unlimited for the drop in Marvel’s sales. That’s one possible view, but probably an overly simplified one.
The Netflix model, or Pandora for that matter, is a tertiary revenue stream for publishers. First you sell the new monthlies (print or digital). Then you sell the collected editions (print or digital). And after that, you start discounting. You can doing by selling subscriptions to your own service or getting fees when consumers subscribing to a third party service (Comixology Unlimited or ComicBlitz) read your comics.
By the time you get down to the third rung of that ladder, you’re picking coins up off the floor compared to your revenue *per item* on the top rungs, but it’s money you weren’t getting before and if enough of a casual audience comes together, those coins can add up. Netflix found so many coins, they make their own material now.
And there are a few different ways people can read on this model:
*Still buy new comics and use Unlimited for back issue reading
*Still buy new comics, but sample different new-ish titles and then back issues
*Just read everything on Unlimited
Now, if a fan drops into that final category, it means that the current comics offerings have lost that fan’s attention to the point that the better deal overrides the desire to have that next issue as it comes out. Or they don’t think that $3.99 for 20 pages is a good value. And you know what? When that happens you have a fan that’s starting to edge towards dropping out. Something like Unlimited can keep them around comics with that monthly fee and maybe they’ll keep buying other titles, be it periodical or collected edition. The perceived value of the current editorial product is absolutely a factor here and that’s not always properly articulated.
It’s a complicated calculus to try and figure out what percentages fit in what group, but anecdotally, don’t the comment sections here tend to revolve around “I was down to one or two books, so this was a better deal?”
Without a lot more research than anybody wants to share we can guess at the real impact, but it’s not necessarily 100% downside.
Todd Allen wears a lot of hats. At various times he’s been (alphabetically), a bouncer, college professor, humor columnist, Internet producer and an NBA/WNBA Beat Writer, among other things. He’s the author of Economics of Digital Comics. You should probably read it.